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Reaching Enough

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

— W. H. Auden, Musee des Beaux Arts

The big things happen around us, things that are planet-changing, culture-changing, life-changing, yet most people go about their business in the most human of ways—intently focused on themselves. Walk into any scene playing out around us and chances are the actors are engaged in the mundane while largely ignoring the monumental. Wars, political scandals, climate change, images from deep space…. all are monumental but don’t quite make the cut when compared to that itchy nose or debate over what’s for dinner or who is taking the recycling out.

It’s this we must understand in our attempts to influence and cajole the apathetic. It’s not about us, it always must be about them. To inspire, stir or instigate the story necessarily must reach into the souls of each member of the audience. Storytelling, selling, pandering for votes—each is a form of engaging the audience and making them feel the story is all about them. For even if it feels like it’s about something much larger, it never really is. It’s always been, and forever will be, how might I stir something in you?

And even then, someone else will be walking past oblivious to the two of us. No matter, for we can’t reach everyone. We just have to reach enough.

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